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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les djihadistes se sont emparés de Maaloula

by Talal El Attrache

Jihadists seize Ma’loula

Translated Wednesday 11 September 2013, by Isabelle Métral

A religious and historic symbol, this small town is caught up in the mad logic of a conflict that undermines the already precarious status of Eastern Christians. Its 10,000 inhabitants have fled towards Damascus.

From our correspondent.

Until now the little Christian town of Ma’loula that lies some thirty miles to the North of Damascus was apparently not threatened by the devastating conflict in Syria. But last September 4th at dawn, a Jordanian Kamikaze on board a car bomb blew up a Syrian army road block near the entry of the town and killed eight soldiers. Groups of Al-Nusra Front jihadists, connected with Al Qaeda, took hold of Ma’loula without meeting with any resistance outside a few sporadic shots from its inhabitants. On the next day the army sent troops that forced the assailants back to the hills that overlook the town. The rebels sent fresh troops that regained control of the town on the Sunday. But on the Monday morning the army again reversed the situation to its own benefit.

In the meantime the inhabitants fled the town and took refuge in Damascus or in the neighboring town of Ein-el-Tineh. “We decided to put our families away from the danger in Damascus after the jihadists arrived,” Hanna, a Ma’loula inhabitant explained, when contacted by telephone. “We remained without any water, electricity and bread for three days because the fighters closed down the town’s bakery.” Out of Ma’loula’s 10,000 inhabitants (or thereabout), only 54 are left in the famous monastery of Saint Thecla, says Pelagia Sayah. “On leaving we saw the corpses that covered the ground on the central square,” Hanna added.

Maalula, a town perched on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains is one of the last spots on the earth where Christ’s language, Aramaic, is still spoken – together with the neighbouring villages of Sabkhine, Bakhaa and Jubaadine. The city, which is over two thousand years old, hosts churches and convents that date back to the first centuries A.D.

Maalula means “entry” in Aramaic. An allusion to the legend according to which the Ma’loula rocks opened at Saint Thecla’s arrival when she was chased by soldiers. The daughter of a Seleucid prince and an alumna of Saint Paul’s, her feast is on September 24th. A monastery is dedicated to her, which was built in the fourth century around Saint Thecla’s grotto and tomb and on the ruins of a pagan temple. The town also boasts the monastery of Saint Serge and Bacchus, two Roman officers and martyrs whose feast is celebrated on October 7th. Muslims and Christians regularly visit it to be granted grace and to make wishes. Below the monastery are a few grottoes cut in the stone by the region’s early Christians who fled there when persecuted. Today jihadists are suspected of taking shelter there, thus making it even more difficult for the Syrian army to drive them away.

The number of visitors to Maalula peak every 14th of September for the celebration of the Cross. But most probably, the event, which has taken place every year for 17 centuries, will not take place next Thursday. For as a jihadist quoted by the large-circulation Lebanese paper As-Safir said, “the Mujahideen have declared war for the conquest of the crusaders’ capital,” meaning Ma’loula.

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